In March, Funders Together's Foundations for Employment and Housing community members came together in Houston to learn about how the city integrated its homeless services system with the public workforce system to ensure all people receiving homeless services can access both employment and housing. In addition to learning from our hosts, community members spent time getting to know one another and sharing their current work – including opportunities and challenges.
At the end of the three days, the group started a process that will ultimately help members identify a collective action they will take in Year 2 of the community. The first step in this process was defining the current state and problem. The following statement was what attendees agreed would serve as the problem statement, ultimately helping to determine the group's collective action.
Later this year, community members will meet in-person again to identify possible solutions that could address this problem and serve as an action item for the community.
In addition to the collective problem statement the group created, community members named five items as their biggest takeaways from the visit.
1. It is possible.
While it may be difficult, and sometimes seem impossible, it is possible for the public workforce system to work with the homeless services system to serve individuals experiencing homelessness.
Public workforce systems are already serving individuals experiencing homelessness, albeit not always well. We, the homeless services system, can work with the workforce system to help them better serve individuals experiencing homelessness that are already entering their system. Stronger relationships and partnership will also allow us to connect individuals in the homeless services system to support and opportunities through the public workforce system.
Houston's homeless services system has an income assessment and triage tool to ensure all people receiving homeless services can access both employment and housing.
They have also led the charge to ensure that homeless services and workforce development stakeholders understand how employment can help prevent and end homelessness and that they are well-equipped to connect homeless jobseekers to work.
2. Working with your CoC AND Workforce Boards is imperative.
To be successful, the Continuum of Care (CoC) and workforce boards must have the right makeup and be willing to listen and learn. These boards will have the ultimate power to make or break this work. Boards that are educated and understand both how employment can help prevent and end homelessness and how stable housing can improve employment outcomes will be able to better support effective partnerships.
In Houston, Mike Temple, Director of Workforce Matters is also the Chair of the CoC Board. Mike joined the CoC Governance Committee and saw the need for more targeted support for individuals experiencing homelessness. He was also in a position to help facilitate partnerships and make changes to both systems.
Our hosts in Houston pointed out that it must be the right board to ask someone like Mike to join. The board must already be strong and coordinated. They must also have the right members. People who are ready to do the work and have the power to make it happen.
3. Just Try It! You have to start somewhere.
While it is important for the systems to be ready, you have to start somewhere. This can mean different things for different communities, but success will depend on relationships between systems and the data and information to make the case.
In Houston, they started by creating an effective homeless response system and identified employment and income as key components. Once they could show the importance of work and employment, they brought in the right people from the public workforce system to help make changes and be successful.
While they still have work to do, they started by trying. Along the way they continue to make changes based on what they learn. Their message: stop talking and planning and start!
4. DATA! DATA! DATA!
Data is essential to any work. The right data can help make the case for partnership or investment and help identify effective models and programs. The intersection between the homeless services system and workforce system is an area where there is room for improvement in every community.
To really understand how your system works, you need to know how many people are entering the homeless services system and asking for employment and how many people are entering the workforce system that are not stability housed. Then, you need to know how many people are referred and if they actually follow-up on that referral. By collecting and evaluating data, we can design more effective systems and better serve job seekers experiencing homelessness.
In Houston, they are collecting new data, and starting evaluation. While they still have work to do, they now know how many people are referred to the workforce system from the homeless services system and how many of those people find employment. As they continue to collect and evaluate data they hope to have a better understanding of what services people are receiving and outcomes based on those services.
5. Funders can play an important role in both preparing and connecting systems.
We know that in addition to funding, philanthropy can help with education and advocacy, support coordination and collaboration, and serve as conveners. All of these things can help workforce and homeless services systems work together and better serve individuals experiencing homelessness.
In Houston, private funders were leaders and influencers that helped move this work forward and change the mindset of other funders, both public and private. Big funders being part of the leadership group gave the work credibility and brought other funders and partners to the table. Private funders also aligned their funding with public dollars which helped eliminate duplication and support the creation of one, more effective system.